Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Dinner @ The Chairman 大班樓

Wild clams in sake & fish broth
When on my travels, I tend to think more about what to eat rather than where to eat. That said, I always make an effort to identify one restaurant for a special treat. For my trip to Hong Kong, I did loads of research in seeking out the one, and time after time, one name kept cropping up: The Chairman (大班樓 tai pan lau).

This Cantonese restaurant stands out for doing things a little differently. For example, the menu changes regularly and is remarkably brief by Chinese standards. Conspicuous by their absence are dishes perceived to be westerner-friendly such as beef in black bean sauce, and more surprisingly, high-end local favourites like abalone. Instead the emphasis is on using, wherever possible, locally sourced free-range produce and additive-free ingredients.

This ethos is highly laudable but it also raises expectations. These were already high enough given that my dining companions, Tom and Jen, are big fans of this restaurant. Indeed it was Tom's recommendation that persuaded me to finally plump for The Chairman. So, no pressure then!

老火靚湯 Soup of the day
子薑皮蛋 Pickled Mid-summer Ginger Root served w/Century Eggs
檸檬葉蝦餅 Pan-fried Prawn Cakes w/Kaffir Lime Leaves
清酒魚湯煮紐西蘭蜆 Wild Clams in Japanese Sake & Fish Broth

Prawn cakes
Century eggs

We, well actually I, kicked off with the soup of the day: a clean tasting slow boiled consommé with pork, tripe and greens. This was followed by century eggs, which came with the most amazing pickled ginger.

Next up were the prawn cakes bejewelled with water chestnuts. Whilst these were tasty, they were no better than what many a restaurant in this part of the world can knock-up. Everything was fine up to this point but I did wonder when the meal was going to really come alive. Well I didn't have to wait long.

The final starter of wild clams is one of those dishes that will live long in the memory. Clams always come alive with a bit of booze and the mix of sake with Cantonese fish broth is an inspired idea. The broth was so moreish, I was well chuffed that there was some mooli to mop it up with. I was beginning to understand the hype.

雞油花雕蒸花蟹配陳村粉 Steamed Fresh Flower Crab w/Aged Shaoxing Wine, Fragrant Chicken Oil & Flat Rice Noodles
十八味豉油雞 The Chairman's Soy Sauce Chicken
話梅肉桂糖醋排骨 Braised Spare Ribs w/Preserved Plums in Caramelized Black Vinegar
梅菜蒸芥籣 Steamed Kai Lan w/Pickled Chinese Vegetables

Steamed flower crab
The clams were a hard act to follow, but the crab surpassed them. Our server advised that we eat the steamed sweet crab first, whilst allowing the rice noodles to soak up the rich sauce consisting of Shaoxing wine and chicken fat. This sauce was so moreish that we asked for extra rice noodles to mop the rest up. This prompted our server to comment, 'many think the noodles are the support act, when in fact they're the main event'. Never a truer word said.

Extra rice noodles
The Chairman's soy chicken
Shortly after we finished our crab, the soy sauce chicken turned up. This is another of The Chairman's signature dishes, and one whose Chinese name boasts of 18 flavours from the same number of different herbs and spices used. I'll be buggered if I can work out what these are although the smooth tender chicken had a boozy medicinal quality rather than the usual predominant notes of star anise. Regardless, it was another winner.

Spare ribs
To round the mains off, the spare ribs and the steamed kai lan arrived. I liked the slightly tart flavour of the ribs (and the crispy fried 'bits' on the side) although Jen thought the meat should've slipped off the bone more easily. The crunchy kai lan and pickled veg was also a fine combo. However, as good as both these dishes were, I'd probably try something else, the next time I visit The Chairman.

桂花杞子雪糕 Wolfberry Ice Cream
子薑雪糕 Pickled Ginger Ice Cream
生磨杏仁荼 Homemade Almond Milk

Wolfberry ice cream
All of these were homemade, and I enjoyed yet more pickled ginger in my ice cream. I'm not a big almond milk fan, but Jen liked hers. With hindsight though, I should've ordered the wolfberry ice cream based on the bit I had of Tom's.

The Details
With its retro red and gold signage, The Chairman looks like an archetypal Cantonese restaurant from the outside. However, once inside, apart from a massive chandelier, the interior is quite simple with white walls adorned by modern art. There's also a serenity that's absent from many a Hong Kong restaurant as exemplified by the quietly efficient service. I also liked that dinner was served 'banquet' style with a nice stagger to enable dishes like the clams and crab to be enjoyed without distraction.

Whilst some might find the portion sizes a bit nouveau and the price tag high (by Hong Kong standards), I think the extra quality outweighs these perceived shortcomings. Besides, if booze is taken out of the equation, I don't consider spending around HK$450/head (apx £37.50/head) on the food that we ordered as being particularly outrageous.

The Verdict
It's been a while since I've done one of these blow-by-blow reviews, and that's testament to how good The Chairman is. This restaurant really does capture the heart and soul of Cantonese cuisine: quality ingredients, simply cooked.

Other Stuff
For those on a budget, there is a three-course set lunch from HK$158 (£13). There's also a set dinner for groups of 4+ from HK$488/head (£40/head). Whilst the set dinner isn't necessarily better value than going a la carte, it is an easier way to sample The Chairman's delights if you're part of a larger group.

The Chairman 大班樓
18 Kau U Fong, Central, Hong Kong
香港 中環 九如坊18號
Tel: +852-2555-2202
Nearest MTR: Sheung Wan

Postscript: Being a food geek. I noticed that the rice noodles served with the crab were described as 陳村粉 in Chinese or Chencun fun rather than the more usual 河粉 or ho fun. My research reveals that Chencun 陳村 is a small village near the city of Shunde 順德 in Guangdong province, an area renowned for its rice noodles. However, I'm not sure what differentiates Chencun fun from normal ho fun - can anyone out there shed some light on this matter?


  1. That looks pretty damn amazing. I would love to taste those clams and the crab and noodles

  2. Nice write up! When I visited here, for some reason my friends didn't enjoy it as much as I did - although I thought the crab with wine/chicken oil was slightly over-powered by the latter! But its a novelty dish : )

    I think 陳村粉 is a little more elastic and sticky than normal hor fun btw! I once watched a video of it being made, they looked like very large round sheets of Vietnamese rice paper wraps!! Wonder if that's how it spreaded to Vietnam! :P

  3. Those clams look damn good.... Will try and go there when we end up in HK

  4. Sharmila - those were the stars of the evening.

    HK Epicurus - I take your point about the sauce but I found it more an accompaniment for the noodles rather than the crab. If your mates are from HK then I can understand if they weren't as easily impressed. Thing is I live in London, and Cantonese food of this quality just doesn't exist.

    Thanks also for the insight into the noodles - you certainly can't get these in London!

    Mzungu - if you do, try and reserve in advance, as this is a small restaurant by HK standards.

  5. Man those clams up the top look amazing! All of this food looks sooo good. Need to make an Asian trip again soon!

  6. catty - you can always stop off on your way back to Oz! And yes those clams were amazing - I'd forgotten how much I like them.

  7. This kind of tempts me to go back... reminds me of the joy of the chicken oil and crab.

    Been out of the country in Seoul so only catching up on your HK/ GZ posts now but looking fwd to reading them :)

  8. Makes me so hungry now!! =)